#CCPinCEE Chinese Influence in Greece
While the phrase “malign influence” may not fully apply to China’s approach in Greece, Beijing’s toolkit includes economic statecraft, political pressure, cultural diplomacy, cooperation at the local level, and agreements with news agencies and media outlets.
One of China’s objectives is to expand its economic presence in Greece through investments in specific industries, such as transportation, energy, and telecoms. In 2008, China’s COSCO Shipping signed a deal with the Greek government to run a major part of the Piraeus Sea port. In 2016, the Greek government held a public tender for a 51% stake in the Piraeus Port Authority (PPA) and the same Chinese company undertook the overall management of the facility. In October 2021, COSCO increased its stake in PPA to 67%. The second major Chinese investment took place in 2016, when China’s State Grid, the biggest electricity grid operator in the world, purchased 24% of its Greek counterpart, IPTO/ADMIE. Notably, both investments took place while Greece was under intense pressure from international creditors, amid the severe public debt crunch and in return for substantial financial assistance provided to the country.
Over the last decade or so, Greek governments have paid a lot of attention to China’s growing political weight in the international arena. Greece’s standoff with Turkey has forced Athens to seek powerful political allies, and Greek decision-makers value China’s position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. In this respect, the frequent high-profile visits between the two countries deserve attention.
Cultural diplomacy has been a steady feature of Beijing’s policies in Athens. China has continuously pointed to a special sense of cultural rapport or even kinship between the two countries — in fact, Beijing has been promoting the notion of Sino-Greek cultural fraternity. Chinese media frequently extol the contribution of Sino-Greek relations “to the wisdom of ancient Eastern and Western civilizations [in] building a community with a shared future for mankind.” Given that Greek citizens understandably take pride in the rich history and culture of their nation, related initiatives easily make headlines and are well received. Chinese officials present the “spiritual kinship” between the two countries as a self-evident incentive for close Sino-Greek economic or political ties in modern times.
Greece has three Confucius Institutes, the newest of which opened in November 2021. In 2019, Greece’s Laskaridis Foundation and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences set up a Centre for Chinese Studies. Meanwhile, a growing number of Greek and Chinese universities are offering Chinese-language courses.
Diplomacy at the local level, which lacks appropriate monitoring and transparency, is an increasingly significant move in China’s playbook. As of April 2021, there were some 20 twinning and cooperation agreements between Greece and China at the level of districts, cities, prefectures, provinces, and regions, though there are many questions over the validity and precise nature of these arrangements. The Greek government, particularly the Interior Ministry, does not have up-to-date information about twinning arrangements (see the annex for more information).
China targets Greek media as both allies and amplifiers. Using third-party outlets to mask Chinese content has become such a common tactic that Chinese Communist Party officials have reportedly given it a name — “borrowing boats to go to sea (jie chuan chu hai),” referring to the use of other actors’ resources to fulfill one’s goals.
Greece’s official Athens Macedonian News Agency (AMNA) signed a cooperation agreement with China’s state news agency, Xinhua, in May 2016. A year and a half later, AMNA agreed to establish a Belt and Road economic- and financial-information partnership with the China Economic Information Service, an affiliate of Xinhua. In November 2019, during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Greece, China’s National Radio and Television Administration and Greek state television station ERT signed yet another agreement. In addition, a leading Greek daily newspaper, Kathimerini, signed a cooperation agreement with Xinhua in April 2017. In 2020 alone, the English edition of Kathimerini republished 66 Xinhua reports, ranging from a rebuttal of claims that China was responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak to pieces praising the BRI, backing Beijing’s position on various international issues, and painting a rosy picture of Sino-Greek relations.